Pat Fitzgerald typically institutes a 24-hour rule for his team to dwell on its past game — 24 hours to celebrate or 24 hours to think about what went wrong. The celebration can afford to last a little bit longer after Northwestern’s 50-14 drubbing of Illinois to win back the Land of Lincoln Trophy, but at his postgame press conference, Fitzgerald was already focused on his next game.
“In my opinion (we made) a very bold statement of a resume-making win and a resume finished to the end for our postseason,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re a very hot football team right now, and if you look at all of our games, we very easily could be undefeated, we’ve been winning every game and I think whatever destination we get, we’ll be very privileged and thankful to have that opportunity.”
All we know about NU’s bowl game is that it will be against an SEC team in Florida — and as a 75-point underdog, Fitzgerald joked — but NU’s coach was making sure he got in a pitch for the destination to be Orlando or Tampa as opposed to Jacksonville.
“I think whoever makes the choice to bring the wildcat nation down to their home, they’re going to get a very hungry football team, they’re going to get a very focused football team that understands what this kind of an opportunity means for us, and get a fan base that’s going to come down and support the community and spend a lot of money,” he said.
“So that’s my infomercial.”
As far as statements go, the bowl reps at Ryan Field saw what they would get — a dominant two-pronged rushing attack and a dynamic offense. Northwestern rushed for 338 yards overall, with 127 of those coming from Venric Mark, who topped the century mark for the eighth time this season. Kain Colter rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown in addition to passing for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think today was kind of a microcosm for the entire year,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been able to run the ball pretty efficiently all season long. We felt like, going into the game, if we were able to establish our run game we’d be able to have great success in the game."
Despite a slow defensive start, NU enjoyed “great success” on offense right from the start. The offensive line, rushing game and passing game were all dominant, and six different players scored touchdowns, including left tackle Paul Jorgensen.
“We’ve got a motto; it’s everybody eats,” Colter said, “so everybody wants to taste the endzone and get plays. That’s one of the things that has kind of developed since I’ve been here, is everybody is competing, everybody wants to get on the field, and that really improves our depth.”
Despite a slow defensive start — Illinois scored on the opening drive due to a number of missed tackles — NU’s defense ended the game with three interceptions and the Illini finished with just 242 total yards. Special teams were lights out, as well, as Jeff Budzien hit two field goals to improve his season total to 17-for-18, and CJ Bryant forced a fumble on a kick return — a mistake from which Illinois could never recover.
It was a “team win” if there ever was one, and that resulted in a much happier senior day than last year, one that this group of seniors started building toward 11 months ago.
“(Our seniors) have led us to this point where we’re at and to have the kind of success that he had this year, No. 1 speaks to their leadership and No. 2 speaks to the attitude that they approached the entire season with,” Fitzgerald said. “It goes all the way back to last January when we got back from our bowl game, and we had some things that we identified that we needed to correct and fix. The catalysts to those corrections were our seniors.”
The 24-hour rule might not be in effect as the regular season comes to a close, but NU still has a lot to play for. In the next month, we’ll hear all about the bowl losing streak, and Fitzgerald knows that. There is still unfinished business surrounding the program.
“I’m very thankful for our seniors and what they’ve done, and what they’ve accomplished,” Fitzgerald said, “but we talked about putting an exclamation mark on their careers. We’ve kind of put the first line down, now we’ve got to dot the exclamation point.
“We’ve going to play a great team (and) you guys aren’t going to give us a chance,” Fitzgerald said (half) jokingly. “We’re kind of cool with that. That’s just the way it goes. We’re going to play it on the road, I assume in Florida somewhere. We’re going to play an SEC team in their backyard, be underdogs by like 75 points. Nothing is new in bowl season for us.”
After a 9-3 year, NU has earned its chance to end that bowl streak on New Year’s Day in the national spotlight. The question is where it will get that chance.
That depends on how well Fitzgerald’s “infomercial” works. But Saturday, NU added just about as good of a highlight tape as it could have to that infomercial.